If you are organizing a visit to the famous Auschwitz concentration camp, you should know that there are mainly two ways to visit it: either on your own, buying tickets to Auschwitz or joining one of the Auschwitz tours from Krakow.
I personally recommend the second option: besides not having to worry about the logistics of getting there, you will be accompanied by an expert guide who will help you understand this tragic episode of history and contextualize the rooms and the different parts of the extermination camp.
In any case, during your visit to Auschwitz, you will visit the two main camps that are part of the great Auschwitz Birkenau complex: Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (both are only 3 km apart). Here is a list of what you will see during the tour.
Auschwitz Camp I
It is the entrance to the extermination camp and the original part of the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex. It was built in 1940 by the Nazis with the idea of housing between 15,000 and 20,000 prisoners. The visit to Auschwitz begins here, where the visitor center is located.
You will immediately recognize the iron gate that appears in all the photos, headed by the famous writing "Work will set you free".
The short documentary of the visitor center
Before starting the tour, the visitor center offers the viewing of a short documentary (about 15 minutes) that will help you to contextualize everything you will see next.
In my opinion, it is worth the time (especially if you have not hired a guide or audio guide for the visit) because it is very dynamic and everything is very well explained. The documentary is in black and white and shows original images of the time.
The large barracks with objects and photos of the victims
The first thing that will strike you upon entering the area will be the huge brick barracks where the Jews arrived and where they stayed during their stay in the camp.
Some of them have been converted today as a museum, where some of the prisoners' belongings that were recovered after the liberation of the camp are exhibited. You will see small objects of personal hygiene, clothes, shoes, suitcases... In this part, the tension of the visit begins to rise and become harder.
The exhibits inside the barracks
Along some corridors you will also see endless walls filled with pictures with photos of the Jews whose lives ended in Auschwitz. On them, you will see the date of their arrival at the camp and their date of extermination. While those who arrived during the first months spent a long time working there until they were exterminated, those who arrived last barely lasted weeks or months before their lives ended.
If you go with children, my advice is not to linger too long in this part of the exhibition, as the details may hurt their sensibilities (there is even a large room with the hair they shaved off the prisoners upon arrival).
The old railroad tracks
Along one part of the camp and also connecting the first with the second, you will see that there are abandoned train tracks. These tracks were used to transport prisoners from one camp to another or to receive them from different parts of the country and the rest of Europe.
The guide will put you in context of how these transfers were carried out and how the prisoners were crammed into crowded wagons. Today these train tracks are not used for anything, but are maintained as part of the Auschwitz memorial.
Auschwitz II - The Great Auschwitz Open Field
After an emotionally charged visit to Auschwitz I, it is time to move on to the Auschwitz II camp. This part is much less touristic and less visited than the camp I, but also, being so large and with so few barracks still standing, it will give you a much greater sense of coldness and abandonment.
This camp was built by the Nazis as an annex to expand the first camp. The number of Jews that could be housed here was much greater: up to 90,000 prisoners lived here simultaneously.
The speed with which this part of the camp had to be built made the materials used and the quality of the barracks much worse: wood was used and the spaces were completely diaphanous so that as many people as possible could fit in. Creepy. Very few are left standing.
The gas chambers
Some of the gas chambers that were used in the extermination of prisoners in this camp are preserved and you will be able to visit some of them. The guide will explain how the Nazis who ran the camp tried to blow them up when the liberation of the Jews began. They tried by all means to eliminate the tortures to which they subjected their prisoners. Today they are preserved as they were after that.
Needless to say that the walk through this area is really gloomy. If you also visit Auschwitz in the winter season, you will see that the temperatures, the humidity and the feeling of cold in the middle of that wasteland is terrible. Imagine the situation that the prisoners lived there dressed in simple cloth pajamas and practically without food for days, weeks or months.
While initially it seemed that these camps were going to be labor camps, with the short passage of time they turned directly into extermination camps. Wagonloads of people arrived who never even made it to Auschwitz, but "landed" en masse in these gas chambers where their lives were ended.
One of the elements that stands out in this part of the camp is the watchtower that is still standing and which you can climb to have a panoramic view that will help you understand the enormous dimensions of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The view from the top is bleak, especially if one tries to imagine what the actual views of the Nazis guarding the prisoners were from here. Terrifying.
The barbed wire fences surrounding the camp
Another thing that surprised me was to see that kilometers of barbed wire surrounding the camp are still standing and that perimetered the little space of freedom and movement that the prisoners had. If after the visit you have time to walk around the camp, you will see that there are still some huge houses that were once the homes of the Nazis who ran the concentration camps.
A terrible contrast compared to the living conditions, work and torture to which the prisoners were subjected for years in this place.
Auschwitz prisoners' life in Auschwitz
One of the things that struck me the most during the tour, in addition to the details and objects that you will see throughout your visit, was that only when you are there you get an idea of what the prisoners' daily life was like.
Until then, I had heard and read about many episodes of this part of history, but when I got there, saw the dimensions of the camps and heard from the voice of an expert guide what the daily life of the prisoners was like, I really got to imagine how all the people who went through there lived.
If you take the guided tour, they will explain how the schedules, routines and functioning of the different pavilions were, always with respect for the memory of the victims. Definitely, a reality check that is worth knowing in order not to forget one of the worst episodes of the most recent history of mankind.